Year of Publication
Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
Dr. Everett McCorvey
The April 1837 debut of tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez at the Paris Opéra sparked uproarious applause and inspired a new group of tenors with a different vocal technique from tenors of the previous generation. Whereas previous tenors of the nineteenth century sang in a graceful, light, and flexible style that complemented the operatic compositions of Gluck, Rossini, and Bellini, Duprez sang in a powerful, forceful voice that brought new dramatic fervor to the existing repertoire of French Grand Opera. Duprez’ stentorian vocal representations of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Robert in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, among others, inspired composers to write more prominent and dramatic tenor roles, eventually leading to the tenor roles in the operas of Verdi and Wagner.
Duprez’ 1837 debut also marked the end of Adolphe Nourrit’s eleven-year reign as the sole leading tenor at the Paris Opéra. Threatened by the prospect of competition, Nourrit eventually left France for Italy in pursuit of the same vocal technique that insured Duprez’ fame. Nourrit studied with Donizetti and debuted at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, but grew impatient with his slow progress, disliked the sound of his new voice, and tried to turn back to his old way of singing. He failed to do so and lost his high notes, as well as his head voice. Nourrit’s pursuit ended in 1839 as he threw himself from the third floor of his residence, his voice, his health, and his psyche all in shambles.
The shift in vocal technique involved a lowered laryngeal position, a raised velum, and a greater use of chest voice muscles in the higher ranges of the tenor voice. The resulting voix sombrée or “closed” or “covered” timbre, offers distinct hygienic and acoustic advantages, resulting in healthier vocalization and greater amplification of the upper harmonics of the voice. The voix sombrée allows the singer to sing at higher pitch levels with lower levels of tension in the vocal folds and the harmonics from the voice source are greatly enhanced at 2500-3200 Hz, the “singer’s formant,” the range at which the human ear is most sensitive.
By reviewing the writings of singers, teachers, and critics of the early nineteenth century and comparing their descriptions of singers’ voices, and then comparing those descriptions with modern studies on the physiology and acoustics of the voice, one can paint a more informed picture concerning the nature and sound of the voices of Nourrit and Duprez. Analysis seems to show that Adolphe Nourrit utilized the lighter vocal production typical of earlier Rossinian tenors, combined with the nasal vocalization of French singers of the early 1800’s. His technique included a low velum, raised larynx, and a pure head voice in the high register. Conversely, Duprez sang with a lowered larynx and a larger degree of chest voice function in his high register. Duprez also incorporated Italian ideals of emphasis on the sound of the voice, rather than the French tendency to emphasize the words. Duprez’s innovations, based in the vocal technique already being used in Italy in the early 1830’s, propelled the voix sombrée technique into the French spotlight, and led to the eventual globalized use of the technique in the opera world.
Vest, Jason Christopher, "ADOLPHE NOURRIT, GILBERT-LOUIS DUPREZ, AND TRANSFORMATIONS OF TENOR TECHNIQUE IN THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY: HISTORICAL AND PHYSIOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS" (2009). University of Kentucky Doctoral Dissertations. 705.